Ack-phhlpt.

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Opus

(From Opus.)

Remember when Opus was going to save the Newspaper Comics Page. And through it newspapers themselves?

Oh yeah. There were announcements. Berkeley Breathed was coming back, and circulation was coming five steps behind him. And it was going to be a whole new era, both artistically for Breathed and commercially for the papers. Breathed was going Sundays only, a la Outland, and was going to get a half-newspaper page. And Breathed, having moved into the twenty first century (well, artistically, anyhow) was featuring a lush, painted palette on these new pieces.

And most of all, Opus was going to be a newspaper comic. No web presence, no sirree bob. If you wanted to see what had happened to Opus and Steve (and occasionally Bill) after all these years, you were going to have to buy yourself a paper! Because that's how it was supposed to be. The web was sucking the life out of comic strips, and it was time to take a stand. Here -- here's a bit from a 2003 Salon article about it:

But business is no place for nostalgia. When Breathed retired "Outland" in 1995, David Shearer of the Washington Post Writers Group -- Breathed's syndicate -- expressed some remorse over the fate of the strips' sizes. "I'd like to see comics displayed bigger. We all would. But that's not the reality of it," he said, pointing toward electronic media as a place for artists to experiment. Ironically, with Breathed's return, the WPWG is using that missed experimentation as a selling point. "The one and the only place to see 'Opus' will be in newspapers," Shearer says. "This is a tremendous opportunity to increase circulation."

And this was going to be a true sequel. This wasn't just "the return of Bloom County." This was "over a decade has passed, and these people are older and flabbier." In fact, several beloved characters -- like Binkley or Milo Bloom or Oliver Wendell Holmes -- were no-shows, because Breathed didn't want to depict them as teenagers (or older). He went on the record about this.

And it premiered to much ballyhoo. And it went into papers.

And then... nothing. No one cared.

Oh, I don't mean to say Opus didn't and doesn't have fans. It does. Heck, it makes me smile more weeks than it doesn't, and that's not always true of comics I read. But Opus's impact was essentially negligible, both on the comics world and on the world of newspaper circulation.

Do you need proof? Opus launched in 2003. It's a four year old comic now. Did you realize that? Had you realized that he had been around for four years? He's a full year older than Websnark is, and Websnark definitely lost its new blog smell a long time ago. (Note to self -- make mention of the anniversary sometime within a month of said anniversary. Jesus, Eric. Try a little, would you?)

In part, the problem was that glorious painted style. Ironically, it would have looked pretty sweet on the web, where the much deeper palette would show the gradations to good effect. Put onto the comics page it came across as dark and muddied, and subtleties were lost by bad LPI counts. It went away soon enough, replaced with essentially the same colors we saw in the Sunday Bloom County.

This was made worse as newspapers began to shrink the comic. The half-page thing didn't last long at all, really. When it was clear that Opus wasn't spiking numbers, there was no real impetus for editors to bow to the Washington Post Writer's Group's demands and strictures. Given the choice between letting them shrink Opus so they could fit more comic strips in or having them drop Opus entirely, they let them shrink it. Ultimately, that meant the painted style had to go, and a coloring style very very reminiscent of the 80's run went in.

Naturally, the "newspapers only" stance died next. The Washington Post -- the flagship paper for Opus -- began to run it on their virtual comics page, and gradually it moved into other online venues as well. It really didn't have much of a choice -- if it was going to start appealing to the comic strip fans out there, it had to go to where they were and do their best to draw them in,.

(Not that that strategy has been successful either. I mean, in several years of posting, Opus hasn't been covered by The Comics Curmudgeon even once. Now, while there's a case to be made that that means Opus is actually pretty good, so Josh Fruhlinger has little to say about it... not appearing at all suggests he just doesn't read it.)

How far have we come from launch? Well, recently Opus went to Salon, which will arguably be the best place to read it moving forward since they're going to maintain an archive. Sadly, the older strips aren't going up there, so we'll have to wait for the inevitable collection.

And also recently... Lola Granola showed up, and so did Binkley and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Binkley and Oliver... were the same age as when we last saw them, so everyone knows. This despite the presence of Steve's own son, who is now Binkley's age.

So what, one is tempted to think. These are the comic strips. Not every strip is Gasoline Alley (thank God), and real time aging is overdone. Which is true enough... if they hadn't made such a big deal about it, and about how if the kid characters came back, then they'd have to be teenagers and Breathed didn't want to draw them like that.

Hackwork? Not really. I mean, it's still funny and Christ, they're Breathed's characters. He can do whatever he likes. But it's been really, really interesting for me to track this experiment in revivals -- revivals of Berke Breathed, revivals of the newspaper comics, revivals of fortune. And to see the early stands taken -- admittedly, stands that were largely based in hubris, but also stands that meant something to Breathed and (it seemed) his editors -- give way to the painful economic necessities of publishing in the modern world.

And we have come full circle now, and it seems the last great threshold has been reached. From that same 2003 article/interview in Salon we see Breathed write:

As an end, controversy is a dead end. It's why TV shows tried to throw in nudity some years ago. I notice now that the ripples de jour are lesbian kisses. It's a sign of desperation, not good writing. Not to say that if I could figure out a way to throw in some hot lesbian action into "Opus," I wouldn't.

True enough. And in its own way, sad enough. Because hey -- guess what? We have controversy in Opus. And sadly, it's not lesbians making out.

You may have heard the story. Opus is running a series of strips where spiritually mercurial and flaky Lola Granola has been trying out different philosophies, theologies and spiritualisms in an effort to find herself. In the most recent strip, she has latched onto a new one -- terming herself a Radical Islamist. In her words, it's the hot new fad on the planet.

It's a pretty funny strip, truth be told. And it says something rather tame about radical Islam and something a bit more brutal about people who leap into new religious fads without thought or real, honest spiritual consideration.

That's not why I'm discussing it. I'm discussing it because newspapers have pulled the strip, because they're worried people will be offended.

That happens a lot in the newspaper world. It's kind of a boring story these days. Though in this case, it's clearly patently ridiculous. Lola is fully garbed (albeit more brightly than one might expect) and is certainly not tearing Islam down with her statements about it. Really, aside from one note about "a man's rightful place," it would probably be completely acceptable to any Muslim reading it, and almost certainly any American Muslim -- the ones most likely to read it -- would be sophisticated enough to take it in good faith. It sure as Hell doesn't come close to the Johnny Hart Islam Outhouse controversy of a few years back (or any number of controversies from B.C. before his death). But still -- comic strips get pulled. It's what happens.

Except... one of the papers pulling the strip is the Washington Post. In fact, that's almost certainly why it's getting airplay.

And it is getting airplay. Hell, Boing Boing took a stand on it, using the cheerful phrase "chickenshit" in it. Which is perfectly apropos. The move really is chickenshit, and dumb to boot. And lots of pundits are noting that in this time of declining readerships, pulling strips that might actually inspire some controversy is a stupid move at best.

I understand these feelings. And I agree with them, but not completely. Not because I think the strip should have been pulled -- it's patently absurd to have pulled this strip. No, I have reservations because I smell a Washington Post sized rat.

Remember, Opus is syndicated by the Washington Post Writer's Group. The same organization that owns and publishes the Post syndicates and distributes Opus. They're different divisions, and it's certainly possible that the Post editors decided they would pull potentially offensive (only not really) strips from the paper without consultation or connection to the editors of the syndicate... but it seems just as likely that if the Post's editors had a problem with the strips, so would the syndicate's editors -- and so would their mutual owners.

On the other hand... the Washington Post pulling a potentially offensive comic strip from their paper (but posting that strip to the web page) -- and that strip being Opus, by Berke Breathed, still considered by some outlets one of the great rock stars of the cartooning world?

Now that's a story.

And a story means people talking about it.

Publicity. Energy. Zazz.

Do I think this was all a master plan on the part of Breathed and his editors? Probably not. It seems more likely that these strips were sent out to papers, one or two pulled them, and someone at the syndicate thought "waaaaaait a minute..." But I do think that Breathed shifts with the wind. We saw it with Outland, which started off as the whimsical flights of fancy of a poor little girl named Roland Ann whose real life was miserable, so she needed a fantasy life she could escape to. By the end of it... it was Bloom County. Bill Watterson hit the nail on the head with a satirical cartoon he sent to Breathed, which Breathed published in one of the Outland collections or a treasury or something. It featured Breathed pouring money into the gas tank of a boat, kicking Roland Ann to the curb due to her innate unmerchandisabilty. Which may not actually be a word, but I digress.

I'm forced back to that Salon article/interview from 2003, where they were talking to Breathed about his intentions for Opus. Sadly, it's a burka instead of girl on girl action. (Man, consider the... er... artistic merits of a Bobbi Harlow/Lola Granola marriage.) But either way, we've got desperation sign in spades these days. And I wouldn't put it past the syndicate to even hang the newspapers out to dry if it meant getting Opus into the young demographic elite. They don't do those great Dakin Opus plush penguins any more, but they'll start churning them out in a heartbeat if there's a demand. And if the tee shirts are subversive this time and sold through Hot Topic instead of through Wal-Mart, I'm sure the money would still spend real nice like.

Really, if this wasn't some kind of publicity stunt, it should have been. It's the only thing that makes this ridiculous strip-pull seem even remotely sane. And if it was, it's been effective. The web's buzzing. People are talking. I wrote 2,200 words that should have gone into "Interviewing Leather" on it.

And lots more people saw this strip this week than saw last week's slice of theological cheesecake. And even more will see next week's banned strip. And a good number of those people will stick around for the week after that.

Maybe they'll be in time to see Cutter John and Portnoy's inevitable return. And maybe Dakin should start sourcing fabric and polyfill, just in case.

26 Comments

Over the past week or so, I've been reading through Josh's blog from the beginning, and I am pretty sure that in one or more of the first 600 posts he mentions Opus at least once.

Josh did cover Opus once (not that this detracts from your point, I just thought I'd link to what he said about the comic):
http://joshreads.com/?p=211

Right-o. I'd forgotten that post, and in doing my usual somewhat crappy due diligence I did a search on his site for "Opus" and came up with nada. Mea culpa, but as you say I don't think it changes the point, since his response seems to have been ennui.

According to a result of a websearch I did in June 2006, Dakin was acquired by Applause in 1995.

I agree with you up until you predict that a good number of the people will stick around. I just don't see it happening. Breathed is past his Sell Out By Date.

You may well be right, Joshua. Though I think it's going better, week by week, than it was for the first couple of years of his run. He got some of his pacing and timing back. In 2003-04, I wouldn't have dignified Opus with "funny." These days, I usually at least smile at it.

Honestly, I've never really cared for Opus, and I really don't remember Bloom County. I never really understood the whole Breathed fandom. Much like I don't get the Achewood fandom, though for different reasons. Please don't hit me.

Man, now you have me missing "Billy & The Boingers". I shouldn't need to explain why.

I find it really funny that they'd pull "Opus" over the potential to offend people. I mean, the lack of coherent thought in "Mallard Fillmore" offends people everyday, but I don't see that getting pulled (well, occasionally, it does, but not often enough). Okay, that was just a cheap excuse for a joke about "Mallard Fillmore," but I think the point is still valid.

I still read the newspaper funnies every day - though in more than one way it hasn't been the same since Schulz passed on. I think Sparky's passing had the scales fall from my eyes - it's not just that newspaper comics aren't as good as they used to be, but for whatever reason the newspapers won't let them be, and "Opus" is just the latest example of that.

I've been waiting four years for you to post something about Opus. Glad to see it finally happen.

To build on the "baseball to the crotch" analogy... I was initially somewhat disappointed with Opus. The first year of strips or so seemed pretty fluffy, like Breathed was lobbing softballs. Hitting easy targets (NASA, aging, consumerism), but for the most part trying out the larger format and the sharper Photoshop graphics. I distinctly gotten the impression that Breathed had really just lost his nerve, and would be more than happy to go the "slightly more irrevent Garfield" route... yes, very pretty bleeds in the background, but without the teeth and attitude most people attribute to the original Bloom County strip.

In the last year or so, he's been slowly sneaking in nastier stuff... cut fastballs, sharp sliders, and filthy sinkers. I keep getting the feeling that what drove him away from the original daily strip in the first place is still bothering him, and he really doesn't have the nerve to "pitch inside" as often as he used to. But it's increasingly delightful to see him let loose more often with his nastier pitches.

One thing I would like to say about the Curmudgeon commentary... I think a lot of people are mis-remembering how edgy the original strip was. It was a lot fluffier than most folks remember. Go back and reread one of the (sadly out of print) compilations... there were plenty of "fluff" jokes well within the neighborhood of "getting hit in the crotch" than you may care to remember. With a daily strip, you can walk a few batters and get the occasional smoke-out, and everyone remembers the smoke-outs. With only a Sunday strip, everybody wants to see a no-hitter shutout every week.

I enjoyed the entry, Eric (and wish there were more discussion about Breathed and his works, particularly the glaring lack of Milo since "Bloom County," despite the resurrection and re-resurrection of nearly every other character, minor or major. Or did I just miss him somehow?). However, I think you mis-interpreted Watterson's private editorial, to a degree.

First, the picture showed Breathed kicking both Ronald-Ann (named after Reagan) *and* Mortimer Mouse, not because they were un-merchandisable, but rather to make even more money for Breathed than they already had (I'm paraphrasing, but a close recollection of the quote Watterson wrote for Breathed is: "Get out of here, you loafers! And don't come back until I see your faces on @#*&! boxer shorts!"). Second, I don't believe that Watterson intended to be purely critical; if that were the case, I don't think Breathed would have enjoyed the comic enough to re-print it for the world to see. It was, instead, a teasing jab at Breathed's addiction to his expensive interest in power-boating, and the downward slope on which it placed Breathed in trying to sustain his hobby while also wishing to maintain artistic credibility (the background featured a syndacite Suit, smiling and thinking, "Heh, heh, I'll have this boy in the palm of my hand in no time!").

Of course, this doesn't refute your overall point about a change in the direction of Outland, and I'm not trying to do so. I just don't think Watterson was saying quite the same thing.

Here's what I don't get:

I work in customer service for a very large company that provides financial services. One of the things we've learned is that the client who threatens to pull his/her money rarely does, and the client who really wants to leave doesn't warn you first.

When I worked in retail, it was the same deal - the customer who complained about the store was back every damn week, and the customer who hates your store never tells you that -- he's busy telling all of his friends.

So for most of us, there's one, maybe two papers in town. You're either subscribed to the local ragsheet, or you're not. People who are going to buy the paper are going to buy the paper no matter how much they might hate their specific paper, because they're paper buyers. And people who don't want to read the paper are either a) subscribed for the coupons and don't read it anyway, or b) probably aren't subscribed.

With subscription levels through the floor anyway, do papers really think that their biggest worry is the person who's offended by a comic?

I loved Bloom County, sort of liked Outland, and never bothered with Opus. I think I've seen maybe four or five Opus strips, and none of them really grabbed me.

I just like Breathed better when I pretend he stopped with Bloom County and didn't do "sequel strips" and "children's books" and "a million greeting cards". Watterson had it right.

Geez, so Bloom County was funnier than this? I've got to find those collections; Lola saying she'd changed her name to "Fatima Struggle" made me laugh out loud. Then again, I don't read Opus every day, so maybe this is just a rare high point.

Hmm. Sorry, don't care anymore. I've grown beyond Breathed and Opus. There's better on the web. Like FBoFW, it may have inspired many of today's webcartoonists, but with the difficulty in even trying to read it for the longest time... well, I gave up. And found I don't miss it.

Which is a sad commentary for what was once one of the greats. I don't miss it. It's not essential.

Rob H., Tangents Reviews

What Breathed misses in Opus (as well as Outland), is that Opus and Bill and Steve were funniest when being the occasional burst of insanity that enervated the dry political and feminist sartorical humor of Milo, Cutter John, and Bobbi Harlow. Of course Steve was a neanderthal, but it was funny because he was still making plays for unshaven, liberated Bobbi, who would rather date the BJ Hunnicut in a wheelchair that was Cutter John. Opus's consumeristic, wussy, cosmetic surgery seeking butt was the link between soliloqouys by Milo or Binkley (back when Binkley actually did something, instead of being the guy that basically said, "oh really?" to the insane characters). Bill the cat was always crazy, but back in the day he used to actually DO things (start rock bands, become a communist), not just make faces and go "aack!".

What this boils down to is that Opus needs a gradually changing storyline upon which to hang these bursts of nuttiness. For that Breathed needs to start doing weekday strips. Dimes to dollars it'll never happen, and Opus will be forever held in relative obscurity.

I can understand where those who want to leave Opus behind are coming from. Did you ever pick up the final Far Side book? There are ten bonus comics, done because an editor told Gary Larson he needed a few more to round out the book. And only one of them was really all that funny, to me. And even though it was less than a year since Larson retired, I knew it was a very good thing he stopped when he did.

Not to say that an artist couldn't make a comeback... but there's only so many times you can draw from a given well. Seriously, I have two Bloom County collections (Penguin Dreams and Stranger Things, and Happy Trails!)... they do manage to bring the funny rather consistently (though as pointed out, they weren't always home runs - Happy Trails leads off with a terrible "computer virus" visual gag). Breathed seems to be like one of those Hall of Famers that hangs around a bit too long. You get the occasional flashes of brilliance, but mostly reminders that the past isn't about to come back.

Regarding the "controversy" of the Radical Islamist thing... I understand completely why the Washington Post (and other papers) did what they did, even if I do see it as a craven and pathetic move. It may not have seemed like a big deal to the majority of Americans (who appear to prefer their cartoons being drawn by corpses), and maybe most of the fallout was in Denmark, but for major media corporations the whole Mohammed/Cartoon controversy was a bit like getting hit with an atomic bomb. The issue is radioactive now, no one's going to touch it. Mainstream Americans, who don't always comprehend the stomach-churning implications of unrestricted Free Speech, and Islamic religious leaders, who may not be aware of the damage inflicted by Censorship... neither side is ready to have that conversation yet.

But Berke Breathed poking a stick into this hornet's nest, just to see what might come out? That's classic Breathed at his finest, bringing heat aimed straight at your forehead and coming at you 90-plus.

For me, "classic Breathed at his finest" was always more about Milo and Binkley lying in a field, yelling at Eddie Murphy and ending poems with "Caspar Weinberger". And Opus screaming about a space walrus with photon flippers or something.

Just randomly courting controversy? That's just edgy for the sake of edgy.

Montykins, I totally agree. (I didn't mind Portnoy and Hodgepodge either; it was a fun cast of characters.) Oddly enough, one of the original Bloom County Sunday strips that still pops in my head was when Binkley told Opus that the "truth" is he looked more like a puffin than a penguin; Opus later tells Binkley the "truth" is that he (Binkley) looks like a carrot.

Yeah, it sounds dumb when I explain it this way but that strip still makes me laugh when I think about it. Bloom County was my favorite strip by far; edgy at times, silly at times, but more often than not very entertaining. (Still have all of the Bloom County books at home; I need to take those out again and relive the glory days.)

Reminds of of a pclips comic about the return http://www.partiallyclips.com/index.php?id=1186

At least he's adapting.. :)

Gene Weingarten was discussing this the other day. Just thought you might be interested:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2007/08/21/DI2007082100527.html

I think Berke Breathed lost it because he was trying to be Dr. Seuss instead of Berke Breathed.

One of the things I didn't like about the new incarnation of Opus is that Opus the original character was lost and was replaced with a spokesman for whatever chip in the shoulder Breathed might have at a particular time.

But this doesn't work, because in BB's own words, he was more Steve Dallas than Opus, so in the new incarnation Opus' behavious is completely inconsistant and OOC.

Hopefully it will improve a little bit if BB find his voice again.

I'm a big Bloom County fan from back in the day. Own all the collections and bought the t-shirt (metaphorical t-shirt anyway.)

When Outland started I read it for a bit and just went meh. Maybe I just missed many of the early comics and only saw the Bloom County redux ones, it just felt like, well, meh.

I had forgotten that Opus was an actual comic until this kerfuffle. Most of it is that I've stopped getting newspapers for about 5 years now. I faintly remember the press about Berke Breathed coming back to the comics but since I didn't actually get a paper it was a non-event.

I did see something about the non-printing of this and the next comic so I read it. And it is pretty funny. I don't think it's offensive but I'm not a "Radical Islamist" so I might be missing something. The point being that now "Opus" is on my radar. Well at least for the next week or so. If it is a PR move well it worked. Well as long as I can read it online and I don't get bored. I'm more than happy to give adviews, but if it's something I bores me or I forget about then all bets are off.

I'm a big Bloom County fan from back in the day. Own all the collections and bought the t-shirt (metaphorical t-shirt anyway.)

When Outland started I read it for a bit and just went meh. Maybe I just missed many of the early comics and only saw the Bloom County redux ones, it just felt like, well, meh.

I had forgotten that Opus was an actual comic until this kerfuffle. Most of it is that I've stopped getting newspapers for about 5 years now. I faintly remember the press about Berke Breathed coming back to the comics but since I didn't actually get a paper it was a non-event.

I did see something about the non-printing of this and the next comic so I read it. And it is pretty funny. I don't think it's offensive but I'm not a "Radical Islamist" so I might be missing something. The point being that now "Opus" is on my radar. Well at least for the next week or so. If it is a PR move well it worked. Well as long as I can read it online and I don't get bored. I'm more than happy to give adviews, but if it's something that bores me or I forget about then all bets are off.

Re: Doug's asking if "Bloom County" really COULD be funnier than that gag in "Opus" -- The only time I remember my dad laughing so hard at a comic strip that he had to put the newspaper down was a "Bloom County" years ago in which Steve Dallas had passed out after a New Year's Eve party. He was woken up by Oliver's Banana Jr. 6000 -- a first-generation Macintosh with feet, and the likely inspiration for the helper in Microsoft Office 98 for the Mac.

Heck, a quick Google search for "Banana Jr." revealed this Web page with the strip that cracked up my dad so hard. Eighth one down, starts with, "Charlene, honey babe, I thought you left."

My paper actually still prints Opus in the half-page size. The Datebook (entertainment) section is printed in tabloid format (regular newspaper sections use the broadsheet paper size for each 2-page sheet; tabloid is broadsheet cut in half, and folded like a magazine) on Sundays, so it's actually easier for them to print it on a full tabloid page.

Unfortunately, the Sunday Datebook is also known as the "Pink", because the whole section is printed entirely on pink paper. If you thought the colors looked muddy on plain newsprint, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Personally, I've never been able to get into Opus. As unhappy as I was that Breathed was quitting Bloom County at the time, hindsight (and Outland and Opus) has made it clear that it was the right thing to do, because he had run out of ideas.

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